Four stars (out of five)
Sure, it wasn't quite a sell-out, but judging by the enthusiasm of the sea of dancing fans gathered close to the Pepsi Coliseum stage, it would've been worth Arcade Fire's while to stop by Indianapolis before this tour. Win Butler, lead singer of the Montreal-based eight-piece, admitted as much from the stage Wednesday night, suggesting that it wouldn't take another ten years for the group (all of ten years old) to make its way back to Indiana.
So while Indy-rooted fans missed the chance to see Arcade Fire — winner of a 2011 best album Grammy for their third full-length, The Suburbs — during their early years, the flipside is that the band's first show in this town was an energetic, well-rehearsed, maybe flawless affair, accentuated by live video and arty loops. And it was even for a good cause — $1 from each ticket went to Partners in Health, a health care NGO focusing its efforts in Haiti; audience members also had the option of donating more to the organization by purchasing a Partners in Health T-shirt co-designed by members of Arcade Fire and The National.
It was a Suburbs-themed night: The show opened with a brief clip from Over the Edge, the 1979 youth-in-revolt-in-the-burbs film, which led into "Ready to Start," one of seven tracks the band played from the new record. The band's treatment of the suburbs is both nostalgic and critical, but it lacks the danger of the film that opened the show, with all of that anger and violence basically internalized. Not that any sort of narrative would emerge for the first-time listener at a live show, and what was most interesting about the setlist was how the band mixed and matched tracks from all three of their albums (The Suburbs, Funeral and Neon Bible), making for a synthetic whole, incorporating slow songs and rockers, supplying visuals of varying interest (including some nifty loops in the style of early silent film).
Arcade Fire has a surprisingly big sound live — drummer Jeremy Gara, who can work more subtly when need be, plays plenty forcefully at the end of bigger numbers, and there was enough oomph in the Coliseum sound system to make band's loudest rocker, "Month of May," work within the context, offering dynamic contrast from the rest of the set. The sound was, thankfully, not an issue: the last-minute venue change from The Lawn to the Coliseum proved to be a good call, because the mix was good enough for an eight-piece band working in several registers (more of a challenge to mix than a typical four-piece, for sure) - and there was that added benefit of being out of the rain, which really started to pour just after the show ended at 10 p.m.
During Arcade Fire's set, Butler joked that it's not a good idea to tour with an opener as good as The National, the Cincinnati-born rock outfit that shares literary sensibilities and songwriting instincts with Arcade Fire. And while that was a nice thing to say, it was also true — The National were quite good, with crooner Matt Berninger's expressive, often troubled voice appropriately prominent in the mix; and they may have a sound that's a little too similar to the Arcade Fire to make for a well-rounded evening, though it was nice to hear two bands at the top of their game in one night.
Both bands fill in the edges of their sound: Arcade Fire adds violin and keyboard to the traditional four-piece sound, while The National tours with an excellent horn section (trumpet and trombone) that accompanied Arcade Fire on an inspired reading of their "Ocean of Noise" later in the night. No one player ever really sticks out on a given song by either band — it's all about texture, about an organic, slow-building sound that accompanies, in the case of The National, typically morose lyrics. And while The National's arrangements are smart and subtle, I found it a little more interesting when they were also challenging, when some deft syncopation propelled a tune or their trumpeter was given a couple solo phrases. It was The National's final night on tour with Arcade Fire; the band was last here in October 2010.